America and the New Financial World

Politicians can make the adjustment more or less painful.


Soon enough, America's financial crisis will wind down -- maybe in a month, maybe in a year. Yet regardless of when, this crisis marks the beginning of a new era for the U.S. For more than six decades, from the end of World War II in 1945 until now, the U.S. was the hub of global capital and capitalism. In the years to come, it will remain a vital center, but not the center.

In 1945, after an exhausting three decades of exertion against Germany, the United Kingdom emerged militarily victorious only to see itself economically exhausted. A year later, it was bankrupt, unable to find capital and on the verge of collapse. It had nowhere to turn but the U.S., which then dictated terms that amounted to a withdrawal of Great Britain from the world stage. The U.S. is not yet in the position of Great Britain, and our creditors in China are not yet as we were then. But absent a more humble and realistic attitude toward capital in Washington, that is the path we're headed down.

What is happening to finance today is similar to what happened to manufacturing beginning in the 1970s. Until then, U.S. manufacturing accounted for as much as half of all global output. By the 1970s, Germany and Japan began to exert themselves as manufacturing titans. So did Taiwan, Singapore, Korea and others that had benefited from American aid. The globalization of manufacturing continued, and was accelerated by the information technology revolution of the 1990s. While the U.S. today continues to produce a decent share of global manufactured goods, it is one among many and employs only 13 million people (10% of the workforce) in a sector that in the middle of the 20th century accounted for a third of all jobs. The same thing is now happening with finance.

In the past five years, there has been a transfer of wealth from the U.S. and Europe to Asia, the Middle East and Russia of trillions of dollars for oil and raw materials as well as inexpensive manufactured goods. Whether or not that transfer has been positive or negative for the U.S. economy writ large -- and there is considerable debate on that subject -- the outflow of wealth is a fact.

You can argue that the transfer of dollars to goods-producing countries, China above all, has provided American consumers with products that might otherwise be unaffordable but has had a negative effect on the U.S. labor force. The transfer of wealth to oil-producing states and countries rich in base metals has been an economic drain, especially as the price has spiked and the cost has risen.

That wealth transfer occurred just as the U.S. financial system began to expand its exposure to the housing market. The movement of capital away from the U.S. was one reason hungry banks turned to more absurd forms of leverage. That disguised the erosion of real capital.

Even as that was happening, however, American financial institutions still wore the mantle of global leadership. As China, the Gulf region, India, Brazil and other parts of the world have increased in affluence, they relied on the expertise, acumen and advice of Wall Street. Go to any region of the world and you will find central banks and investment banks staffed by people educated at U.S. business schools and graced with resumes that include time at the formerly premier institutions of Wall Street. Few major deals were brokered without involvement from a U.S. bank or access to Wall Street financing. That is now at an end.

It is at an end for two reasons. One is structural. There are now vibrant economies that don't depend on the U.S., are not heavily levered, and have a burgeoning, confident and ambitious middle class. But it is also at an end because those newly affluent regions of the world do not find the U.S. a welcoming home for capital.

There is no small irony in the fact that state-driven capitalism, which is the norm in the Persian Gulf and China, finds the U.S. too restrictive. Sovereign wealth funds, with enough cash on hand to bail out Wall Street and the U.S. housing market many times over, invested billions a year ago but are now saying no.

Uncertain growth for the United States is one reason. But the nature of the American regulatory regime is also to blame. Sarbanes-Oxley and the Patriot Act -- whose anti-money-laundering provisions had the unintended consequence of repelling legitimate investors -- combined with a tax code that places a heavy burden on corporations doing business in the U.S. has meant that, as the wealth transfer has happened, there is less and less inclination for global institutions to place that capital in the U.S.

This is a fact regardless of whether you believe that a high corporate tax rate is morally and fiscally correct. In truth, because of the differentials between high U.S. corporate taxes and the rates in Europe (lower) and Asia (in places nonexistent), even U.S.-listed companies that operate globally keep their profits outside the U.S., and thereby avoid those high taxes altogether.

In addition, the regulatory requirements of listing a company in the U.S. have led many companies to look to other markets and other exchanges for financing, hence the boom of financial centers such as Hong Kong, Dubai and even London.

This should not be a partisan argument. It is perfectly fair to argue that wealthy corporations should pay a greater share of the tax base than struggling middle-class Americans. Fair, but not realistic. The U.S. government can no longer dictate to global capital. Once, when the U.S. was the engine of global growth, when the world needed Wall Street for funding, capital could be taxed and controlled by the fiat of the U.S. government. No longer. The U.S. may have the will; it does not have the power.

The current debate in Washington gives no indication that this reality is understood. Both sides of the aisle are susceptible to a false sense of American economic sovereignty. Companies and countries flush with cash increasingly view U.S. laws, regulations and attitudes as undue burdens. As consumer activity accelerates outside the U.S. and Europe, and as financial centers spring up elsewhere, there is increasingly less inclination and less need for the world to go either to Wall Street or to Main Street.

For now, even with the breakdown of Wall Street, the U.S. remains vital to the global economy. It is the largest market, with a dynamic consumer culture, innovative companies, and is deeply enmeshed in the international system. But it is not the alpha and the omega; it is not the center; and the crisis hitting Wall Street is leading the rest of the world to form bonds that bypass the U.S.

Not all of this need be an absolute negative. In a truly interconnected world, more affluence and activity globally can be a universal benefit. U.S. companies operating outside the United States and Europe have already been reaping the rewards. But failure to accept the new reality will lead to the worst of all worlds.

As the U.S. government plunges into the markets, we must understand that this is the end of an era, and that attempts to unilaterally force capital to stay here will only lead to its continued flight. We are now one market among many, a huge and affluent one to be sure, but a wise nation recognizes both its strengths and its limitations. A more secure domestic capital base depends on the U.S. being seen as a desirable place for investment, and not as King Lear raging against the storm, alone, deluded and abandoned.

Mr. Karabell is president of River Twice Research. His latest book, "Chimerica: How the United States and China Became One," will be published next year by Simon & Schuster.